Medical personnel at a COVID-19 medical screening annex at NYC Health + Hospitals Metropolitan in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Medical personnel at a COVID-19 medical screening annex at NYC Health + Hospitals Metropolitan in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Health officials say too many refusing to wear masks, maintain social distancing guidelines. 

As the coronavirus continues to surge across Wisconsin, public health officials wonder what it will take to convince more people they need to take part in behaviors that will slow the spread of the contagious, deadly virus. 

On Friday the state Department of Health Services reported another one-day record number of 6,141 new COVID-19 cases. That total comes two days after a previous record of 5,935 positive cases reported on Wednesday and another 5,922 on Thursday.

Friday also marked the second-highest, one-day increase in deaths, at 62. The highest number of daily deaths reported was 64. A total of 256,065 coronavirus cases have been reported in Wisconsin, according to DHS, and 2,256 people have died from the virus.  

Those totals mark a continuation of rising COVID-19 cases across Wisconsin, one of the nation’s hotspots for the virus for the past several weeks. Six Wisconsin cities are listed on the New York Times’ list of 20 metro areas in the US with the highest two-week positivity rate per 100,000 residents. 

Gov. Tony Evers and state DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm repeatedly have urged state residents to wear masks in public, maintain social distancing, and refrain from gatherings with others. In response to growing COVID-19 cases, Evers on July 30 issued a mandatory mask order in public places and subsequently extended that order. Republicans have challenged the order in court, saying the governor lacks the authority to reissue it. 

On Friday, following another legal challenge to state efforts to contain the virus, a three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals overturned a state order that restricted indoor gatherings to 25 percent of a building’s occupancy limit. 

“This is another blow to our state’s response to this pandemic and our efforts to keep Wisconsinites safe,” said Evers in a statement. “We will continue challenging this decision, but the bottom line is that we can’t wait for the courts to figure this out—we need Wisconsinites to stay home and mask up, and it has to start today. It’s the only way we will get this virus under control and ensure our economy can recover.”

County health officers across Wisconsin continually have said such practices as wearing face masks in public are the best ways to prevent spreading the virus. While many people are abiding by those actions, others have refused to do so, with some saying it infringes on their personal freedoms. 

As Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese watches COVID-19 numbers continue to climb higher, she wonders how prevalent the virus will have to get before more people are convinced to engage in actions to prevent its spread. 

On Friday another 160 cases were reported in the county in west-central Wisconsin, one day after a one-day record 240 new cases with a 47% infection rate. That total topped the previous one-day record of 178 set last week. A total of 4,716 COVID-19 cases have been reported in the county, along with 30 deaths, including two on Friday.  

Twelve people died in county hospitals in the past week, and a growing number of outbreaks in recent weeks have occurred at such congregate sites as nursing homes, group homes, assisted living facilities, and schools, health officials said. Infections at those locations can boost total positive cases quickly because the virus is contagious and spreads quickly.

Even with those numbers, Giese said, many people continue to ignore recommendations to wear masks in public, maintain social distancing, and refrain from gatherings. 

“I think the numbers are now getting beyond what a lot of people imagined they would be,” she said. “I don’t know what more it will take to get people to take this more seriously. It is concerning when we see that people are only finally paying attention when someone they know or love is sick or has died.”  

Despite repeated warnings about the dangers of contracting COVID-19, county health officers throughout Wisconsin report continued crowds at taverns, weddings and other gatherings in which people aren’t preventing virus spread. 

“We know those events are continuing to happen,” St. Croix County health officer Kelli Engen said, noting she and other health officers learn about those events as they investigate positive cases of COVID-19. “For months we have had too many people not listening to our recommendations, and now we are seeing the results of that.”

The surge in cases in her county, where 14 people have died of COVID-19 and 2,469 cases have been reported, has outpaced the ability of her department to track the virus through contact tracing and prevent its spread, Engen said, even with the recent addition of 20 additional employees to do that work. County health officers in other locations said they too can no longer keep up with contact tracing efforts and must rely on people infected with the virus to contact those they have had contact with.

As a sign of health officers’ challenges dealing with COVID-19-related issues, on Thursday Stephanie Smiley, the interim state health officer since May, announced she is leaving DHS next week. The department’s Deputy Secretary, Julie Willems Van Dijk, will take over Smiley’s job on an interim basis. 

The rise in COVID-19 cases is stretching hospitals’ ability to treat those patients as staff shortages are occurring because medical personnel must be quarantined after being exposed to the virus. The Wisconsin Hospital Association reported a record 1,787 COVID-19 patients needing hospitalization and a record 385 in intensive care units. 

Administrators at many Wisconsin hospitals report they are nearing or have reached capacity to treat COVID-19 patients. Hospitals in the northeast part of the state have been hit particularly hard, and in Eau Claire Mayo Clinic Health System officials announced last week they are temporarily deferring elective procedures to focus on patients being treated for COVID-19.

“We are now at risk of overwhelming our healthcare system,” Dr. Richard Helmers, MCHS regional vice president, said in a news release.